To Disneyland and Beyond

If there’s one thing I never thought I’d do in my life it was go to Disneyland. Which is strange given that I grew up in a seaside resort town in England where one of my favorite things to do when I was a kid was go to Peter Pan’s Playground.
I don’t remember riding the roller coasters but I did enjoy the bumper cars, and I especially liked staring at all the scenery some creative mind had concocted to make visitors feel like they had stepped into a world where people could fly, and houses weren’t always exactly plumb and square.

And the best part was the lights that came on after dark, adding an element of wonder to this land of make-believe with the longest pier in the world stretching out into the sea behind it.

So you’d think that having been wooed by this kind of setting in my formative years, my imagination budding at the sight of flying Darlings and candy-colored trains, I would leap at the chance to go to Disneyland. But somehow it wasn’t in my comfort zone. Neither was writing a novel about the workings of a small animal vet, to be honest, but when our friendly veterinarian, Dr. Timothy O’Rourke asked me if I would take on this challenge, I didn’t hesitate. Partly because I owed him for two knee surgeries he’d performed on my dog, Molly Moon, but mostly because my inspiration for writing my first novel, How to Make a Pot in 14 Easy Lessons, had been the books by James Herriot about being a vet in Yorkshire, England. So when Tim proposed this idea, of a book about the facts of small animal care wrapped in whatever fictional storyline I cared to come up with, I saw a circle in my life spin to completion just as surely as if Tinkerbell had whisked it through the air with her sparkly fairy dust.

Yet still, when I handed the finished copy of The Gift to Tim and he offered to fly me and my husband down to Disneyland as a thank you I shrugged. Maybe not. “You just have to put aside your preconceived notions,” he told me, “and let loose your inner child.”
Hmmm. I pondered this. What were my preconceived notions? That Disneyland was mega-commercial, that it would be awash with people, that we’d have to wait for ages to get on rides? Yes. So? Those weren’t the things holding me back. It was the thought of the rides that was making me nervous. Wait, what? When did I become such a wuss? Specifically when I went to a fairground with a college girlfriend oh these many years ago and the greasy-haired youth operating the spinning circle seat ride decided he’d have some fun with the two blonde co-eds and spun us so fast I thought my neck was going to snap. Did I really want to put myself in that position again?

But Tim persisted. He told me that he was so pleased with what I’d come up with in The Gift he wanted the whole world to read it. But since he didn’t know how to make that happen, he could at least treat me to a moment in a place that he was sure I would find inspiring. My mind skittered to Topsy Turvy, the film by Mike Leigh about Gilbert and Sullivan, and how, when the operatic duo are in the pit of a creative slump, Gilbert’s wife tells him about a Japanese Exhibition going on in Knightsbridge.
“You need to go,” she insists after he flatly refuses to be distracted by such frippery.
“Do I,” he replies, so matter-of-factly that it’s obvious that he thinks he does not. “You know my mind better than I do, do you?”
“I know you better than you think I do,” she retorts.
Gilbert finishes by telling her she can go but that he will not accompany her “for all the tea in China.”
And then we see the two of them at the Japanese exhibition, with Gilbert captivated by the Japanese girls in their colorful kimonos, peeking out from behind flowery fans as they bow gracefully to the passing crowd and . . . well . . . the rest you know.
Might I get so inspired by something I saw at Disneyland? Well, of course I might, I realized. So I went.

And it didn’t take me long to get caught up in the make-believe. As soon as I walked through the entrance gate it was if I had stepped onto a movie set, which appealed to the actress in me. I made a beeline for the cart laden with Disney paraphernalia and picked out a headband of velvety Mickey Mouse ears fronted with a bright red bow covered in white polka dots. I needed to get in costume if I was going to be on set all day. Besides—and here’s the truth of it—I’d seen others wearing similar headbands coming in on the shuttle and I’d rather taken a fancy to the bright red bow.

We started around the set, stopping at all the “locations” that appealed to us: Pirates of the Caribbean, Haunted House, Indiana Jones, Buzz Lightyear. I went from feeling like I was on a gondola floating through the starlit canals of Venice, to reading headstones with clever wordplay names like I.L. Beback and Theo Later, to seeing puppets made to look like roosters at an auction or like skillet toting women chasing bawdy men out of alehouses.

We drank mint juleps that were essentially iced water with a sprig of fresh mint in them and ate donuts dusted with candy cane sugar. Which you’d think wouldn’t taste that appealing but there was just enough candy cane in the sugary coating to make it reminiscent of a spice you couldn’t quite identify but which you knew was adding to the flavor sensations in your mouth. In fact it was so good I can still bring to mind the taste of the tiny, sweet, minty crumbles around the warm, airy dough of the donut.

And yes, there were waits to get on the rides. The longest was almost an hour, waiting to board “the happiest cruise that ever sailed.” But you know what? Nobody complained. Instead people chatted and played with their phones, signed up to fast track on other rides and watched themselves creep closer to the boats that were going to ferry us through a long, meandering tunnel where we would see Christmas around the world. And that’s when I got my favorite moment of the entire day. As our boat jostled into the darkened interior of the ride and the lights came up on sleighs stuffed with giant squares of cardboard painted to look like wrapped gift boxes tied with colorful ribbons, the little girl sitting behind me in the boat gasped a long, delighted “ohhhhh” and I felt my face break out into a smile. The wonder and enchantment in that gasp epitomized the best of Walt Disney; how he was able to use his artistic talent to bring cherished stories to life in ways that make us say, yes, yes, that’s what it looks like. I can only aspire to using words to create such glorious pictures in people’s minds but aspire I will, because who wouldn’t want to try to conjure an image that leads to a spontaneous, unselfconscious gasp that says the wait had been entirely worth it.

Our day continued with more indulgence in the mega-commercialism (I got a Goofy hat for my little friend, Leo, in addition to the Mickey Mouse ears, which I gave to his sister Lily, and a little Dumbo to sit on the dash of my car and remind me that apparently I like characters that can unexpectedly fly) and ended with the lights being lit on the Christmas tree.
Christmas Tree
And suddenly I was a little girl again, standing on the seafront in Southend looking at the lights of Peter Pan’s playground. My inner child had been set free and I found myself thinking about my Nan, and how she took me to the cinema when I was about five to see Mary Poppins. My Nan died before I turned ten and I don’t have any memories of time spent with her except that one, which should tell me something about why I was destined to go to Disneyland. Because Walt Disney provided for me the lasting image of two girls, separated by about sixty years, sitting next to each other in a darkened cinema, spell bound by the pictures on the screen in front of them. Somehow I think there might be a story in that.

So thank you, Tim.

For repairing my dog’s knees so she can run and dodge and leap with the agility of a pro-basketball player.

For asking me to write the book in the first place.

And for Disneyland.

And as far as the whole world reading our book is concerned, maybe you could try wishing upon that star.
Mickey Mouse


3 Beaches in 3 Weeks.

When my mother called to say that she had purchased her ticket to come out and visit me from mid-September into October, I decided to set the date for my book event at Adelaide’s Coffee and Books in Ocean Park, WA. My mother loves the water and was particularly impressed when I took her down to the Oregon Coast last November, when she came out to join us for her first ever Thanksgiving. Taking her to Ocean Park on the Long Beach Peninsula, I decided, would not only lengthen her view of the Pacific Ocean, but would allow us to discover a new place together.

We arrived close to dinnertime and pulled into Klipsan Beach Cottages where a five-minute walk on a trail through tall, patchy grass takes you directly to the beach. At 81, my mother doesn’t do uneven terrain so easily but with the help of her walking stick and my husband’s arm, she conquered the trail to get her hit of the Pacific Ocean just as the sun was beginning to set.

Sunset at Ocean Park

Sunset at Ocean Park

We were on the ‘world’s longest beach’ according to local lore and as fresh and invigorating as this section of coastline felt, it also hummed with centuries old history. The Long Beach Peninsula is where Lewis and Clark saw the Pacific Ocean for the first time and carved their names into a tree and I wondered, because of the rugged nature of the short trail we had just crossed, whether this 28-mile long peninsula had once been thick with trees? I found myself thinking of Annie Dillard’s description in “The Living” of women in the late 19th century lifting their hooped skirts to get between the trees in the Pacific Northwest.

The next day we explored Ocean Park, where we were welcomed not only by the owners of Adelaide’s Coffee and Books (and presented with a very tasty lunch) but also by some of the neighborhood artists from the gallery across the street, Bay Avenue Gallery. Sue Raymond, who owns this gallery, is also a potter. She was introduced to my novel by Mary Peterson, and went on to help spread the word about my book event. We met potters, painters, glass artists and metal sculptors. Plus Sue gave Stephen, my husband, the deluxe tour of her new pottery teaching studio, making him feel right at home.

After lunch we journeyed from Ocean Park to Oysterville, staring in wonder as we passed beautiful, shingle-sided homes that are part of the historic register. We found piles of oyster shells and filled two coolers with some of them for Stephen to use in his kiln. He leans the oyster shells up against the unglazed sections of his pots and the calcium flashes gold on the clay.

Oyster Gold

Oyster gold on a wood-fired mug

Oyster gold

Here it is again on the lower part of this pitcher

Once we had the shells we headed back down the peninsula to Cape Disappointment, where we explored the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center, and finished our day with our friends, Jay and Mary Ann, eating a very tasty meal in Ilwaco at Pelicano Restaurant.

The weather began to close in as a storm approached the peninsula on the third day of our visit, which made the atmosphere inside Adelaide’s for my book presentation and reading that much cozier. Fortunately we were well on our way home before the rain hit so hard it drenched Mary Ann as she was loading her car, and before the 70 mph winds raged through the Long Beach Peninsula, making everyone that lived there glad to stay at home.

A week later, my mother and I headed down to the Oregon Coast, this time purely for pleasure. The weather was in our favor again as we explored Rockaway Beach with our friend, Erin, and her 4-year old daughter, Matilda.

Nicola, mum and Matilda

Mum with me and Matilda

The coastline in this part of Oregon is impressive for its sheer magnitude, for its pristine natural colors and for the waves that curl onto the sand filled with froth and foam. Erin and I walked and talked our way along the white-gold sand towards a rock formation rising up out of the ocean while mum explained to Matilda that if she dug down into the darker, wet sand she would find water under the surface. Matilda was enchanted and proceeded to dig a line of puddles in the sand that were just big enough for her to put her two, bare feet in.

Rockaway beach

Rockaway Beach Matilda and her puddles

After playtime, we drove a little further north along Hwy 101, in search of lunch, and discovered some great viewpoints, where we could look down and see the natural wonder that is the Oregon coastline.

Oregon Coast

A view of just part of the Oregon Coast

I don’t think Americans know just how impressive the sight of so much land is to the English – but take it from me, it is. We come from an island that is miniscule compared to the United States, and to look down on this wide, meandering sweep of sand that seems so untarnished by humans – well, it’s mind-boggling.  Maybe that’s why Lewis and Clark named Cape Disappointment thusly; they were expecting to step off their boat after navigating the Columbia River and onto a mighty coastline. Instead they found a spit of sand steeped in fog. They probably thought to themselves, “What a swizz!” (Which literally means what a disappointment but because it’s a British expression, from the days of my youth, I doubt Lewis and Clark really thought it. Apparently they thought something close to it, though.)

Another week later and it was time for my mother to return to England. I flew back with her because my father had passed away during her visit and my brother had organized his funeral for after her return. For the third time in 3 weeks, I found myself at the beach. This time in Southend-on-Sea, the town where I grew up and where my mother still lives, in Essex, England. Southend is rather like the Long Beach Peninsula in that it finds itself at the confluence of a large river and the sea; in this case, the River Thames and the North Sea. It also boasts the ‘world’s longest pier’ and, although it doesn’t have oysters, it is home to some of the best cockles and mussels to be found in the British Isles.  And it also has a sense of history; across the water from the beach, you can see Sheerness, in Kent, where the “bouncing” bombs used by the Royal Air Force to blow the dams in the Ruhr Valley, Germany, during WWII were tested. (And if you haven’t seen the 1955 film The Dam Busters, which retells this particular piece of history, then you should. It’s very compelling—and available on Netflix).

Sheerness, across the water

Sheerness across the water

Going down to the seafront for my daily walk I was struck by how much saltier the air smelled here than on the Long Beach Peninsular or in Oregon. I think it’s because of all the seaweed that gets deposited on the beach at high tide. Or maybe it’s all the  beach huts and development along the seafront, trapping the air and making the aromas more pungent.

Seaweed at high tide

High tide on Southend beach

Beach huts 2

Beach huts on the Southend seafront

I watched the waves lapping backwards and forwards on the pebbly beach and remembered my dad teaching me how to float on my back and then do the backstroke in this water. After that I progressed to swimming on my front without him and my dad applauded me because he said he’d never learned to swim on his front. That was the nature of our relationship; he would teach me the basics then get out of my way so I could go further than him. I don’t think he expected me to go quite so far geographically from him in my adult years but, before Alzheimer’s robbed him of all cognitive thought, he would often end our telephone conversations by telling me to keep on doing what I was doing with my life because it obviously made me happy.

I turned and started stretching out down the seafront, memories of things near and far, past and present, floating in and out of my mind. And I realized that’s what the sea does for us with its tidal waters; it gives us a sense of renewal.  And as my family sat around a table overlooking Southend seafront at the Roslin Hotel, eating a farewell meal to dad after his funeral, the tide slowly went out behind us. He was on his way.

I leave you with the photograph of a rainbow over the Pacific Ocean taken by Charlotte after the storm that we missed on the Long Beach Peninsula. I hope my father is somewhere over that rainbow, at peace.


Rainbow off the Long Beach Peninsula